Maine’s “Instant Runoff” Proposal Could Banish Its Governor From State Politics

If Question 5 passes, Maine's controversial governor Paul LePage won't be able to win any more elections simply by appealing to a fervent minority.

Gov. Paul LePage after winning a second term Nov. 4, 2014, in Lewiston, Maine. Photo: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Maine’s colorful governor, Republican Paul LePage, has once again grabbed headlines — this time for leaving a profanity-laced voicemail for an opposition lawmaker and then declaring that the “overwhelming majority” of Maine’s “enemy” are “people of color.”

LePage’s antics have left many people outside Maine wondering how the bland, sensible state ever elected him. The answer’s straightforward: LePage has never needed a majority of Maine’s votes to win. Maine has a standard first-past-the-post voting system plus a strong tradition of third parties and politicians running as independents. With multiple candidates running against LePage during his two races for governor, he was able to squeak into office both times with just a plurality of votes.

In 2010, LePage was elected with just 37.6 percent of the vote. In 2014, he received 48.2 percent of the vote. In each election, a combination of independent and Democratic Party candidates received the majority of the votes.

But everything about Maine politics may change this November. Partly in reaction to LePage’s victories, activists have put Question 5 on the ballot, an initiative that would create what is called a “ranked choice” or “instant runoff” voting system for all state-level races. If Maine votes yes on Question 5, it would mean that no one could be elected to state-level office in Maine — meaning governor, U.S. senator and representative, and state senator and representative — without the support of a majority of voters.

Here’s how the ranked choice system works:

• Voters do not choose just one candidate for each office. Instead, they rank everyone running, from their top preference to their lowest.

• If a candidate gets a majority of first-choice votes, he or she wins.

• If no one receives a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate who received the fewest first-choice votes is removed from the contest. Then all of that candidate’s second-choice votes are distributed among candidates remaining in the process.

• If one of the remaining candidates get a majority of votes, he or she wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is again eliminated, and the process continues until someone does have a majority.

In 2014, the city of Minneapolis used this system. Watch the video below, put together by Minneapolis Public Radio, explaining how it works:

One of the main attractions of ranked choice voting is that it allows candidates from third parties to run in elections without acting as spoilers for a voters’ second choice candidate.

“It’s time for a better election system. It’s time for ranked choice voting,” Maine Democratic Rep. Diane Russell wrote prior to the 2014 election. “You can actively champion your favorite person without ensuring the electorate’s least-favorite candidate wins.”

At least 10 U.S. cities currently use ranked choice voting, as well as some locations overseas, including London.

In London’s recent mayoral election, the Labor Party candidate Sadiq Khan and Conservative Zac Goldsmith came in first and second, respectively, but neither received a majority of first-preference votes in a twelve-candidate field. The Green Party candidate, whose voters were far likelier to prefer Khan to Goldsmith, came in third. Thanks to the ranking system, once second-choice preferences were accounted for, Khan was elected mayor with a majority of votes – even as voters had been able to seriously consider smaller parties without worrying that their vote would be wasted or would help elect the candidate they liked least.

Opponents of Question 5 have argued that the system’s complexity would be “confusing and difficult” for voters, as Maine Republican State Rep. Heather Sirocki argued in an op-ed last March. Indeed, the system does involve a longer process that requires more complex decision-making.

When San Francisco adopted the system, some voters were simply putting the same candidate as their first, second, and third choice. If Question 5 does pass, it would be up to Maine’s government to properly inform voters about how to utilize the new system, so that they can take full advantage of the benefits it provides.

Maine governors can serve a maximum of two consecutive terms, so LePage cannot run again in 2018. However, he has floated the idea of running for the Senate instead that year. He could also sit out four years and run for governor again in 2022. But if Question 5 passes this fall, what he won’t be able to do is win an election simply by appealing to a fervent minority.

Top photo: Gov. Paul LePage after winning a second term, Nov. 4, 2014, in Lewiston, Maine.

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